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A Mystery
on the
Mountain
of Pain

I feel completely safe on Mount Ararat until I see Stanislav sliding down the mountain on his back. Stanislav—Stan for short—looks like the archetypal Russian of Putin’s dreams: shaved head, steel gray eyes, and the bloated quads of a body builder. He’s been at the vanguard of our assault on the mountain for the last three days, but now he appears to be taking a strange circuitous route to his death, spinning rapidly down the mountain like a Victorian top.

As he falls, our guide, Selahattin, tries to grab him but loses his balance and begins to tumble as well. Selahattin manages to dig his walking pole into the snow and arrest his slide. Stan, however, is heading down an increasingly steep ice slope toward a boulder field several hundred feet below. I dig my crampons into the snow and scream to no one but myself, “What the hell are you doing here!?”

Mount Ararat is known in Turkish as Agri Dag—the Mountain of Pain. Situated on the border with Iran and Armenia, it is Turkey’s highest mountain. But this fails to capture the mountain’s true allure, the echo of seventeen words written centuries ago: “Then the ark rested in the seventh month, the seventeenth day of the month, on the mountains of Ararat,” the Book of Genesis reads. Although the phrase “mountains of Ararat” refers to a geographical region, for many people, this specific mountain serves as the setting of the story of the flood, the Ark, and humankind’s salvation.

An archeological site with the potential to prove the existence of God

The mountain is for many a symbol of redemption and rebirth. But for a few who interpret the bible literally, it is more than that: It is the actual resting place of the Ark, an archeological site with the potential to prove the existence of God.

I came to Ararat to find out about Donald Mackenzie, a 47-year-old British climber who disappeared in 2010. Mackenzie had been climbing the mountain, without the requisite government permit, at the end of September, when temperatures begin to plummet to well below zero Fahrenheit. He hadn’t come to Ararat to test his mountaineering skills against brutal conditions. He was driven by a very different desire. “It was finding the Ark and the impact it would have on the world,” says Jeremy Wiles, an American Christian filmmaker who met Mackenzie in 2004 in Dogubeyazit, the town at the foot of Ararat. “Those who were convinced by the media and the scientific community that the story of the Ark was a legend, he wanted to show them the Ark and prove otherwise.”

Mackenzie dedicated almost a decade of his life searching for Noah’s Ark. A born again Christian who felt it was his mission to spread the word of God, he believed Noah’s Ark was on Mount Ararat and that finding it would change the course of modern history. So it was little surprise that when Noah’s Ark Ministries International (NAMI), a Hong Kong-based evangelical organization, announced in an April 2010 press conference that was covered by the international media and attended by provincial Turkish government officials, that they had with 99.9 percent certainty found the Ark in an ice cave on the slopes of Ararat, Mackenzie would choose to go see for himself.

Although the Hong Kong organization refused to disclose the location of their find, Mackenzie was determined to find it anyway. “I got the impression that at that time he had almost lost interest [in the Ark],” says his younger brother, Derick. “He didn’t seem to be bothered at all. But then this came up, and he was suddenly like, ‘I’ve got to go. I’ve got to go and find out.’” The last his family heard from him was when he called his older brother, Ross, from Turkey late that September, telling him that a storm was just dying down on the mountain and he was going to cook some dinner outside his tent. He hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

I knew that if Mackenzie died or disappeared in the beach resorts of Western Turkey, as some Brits do, there would have been wall-to-wall media coverage and a full police investigation. But the east of the country was different. A dirty and dark conflict between the state and the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) had raged here for more than 20 years before the announcement of a peace process in 2012. Turkish security forces long ago perfected the art of making things disappear, both information and people. According to Derick, “Basically, the attitude of the Turkish authorities is that… he got what’s coming to him, he shouldn’t have been up the mountain. It’s his own fault and that’s that, end of story.”

Donald Mackenzie on Ararat. Photo courtesy of Derick Mackenzie

Since Friedrich Parrot first reached the summit of Mount Ararat in 1829, people have been drawn to the mountain to look for Noah’s Ark. Some trips have been well-funded, planned with the dedication of a polar expedition or Everest summit. In the early 1980s, for example, James Irwin, a former NASA astronaut, led two meticulously planned expeditions to Ararat. “It’s easier to walk on the moon. I’ve done all I possibly can, but the Ark continues to elude us,” said a despondent Irwin after his last failed expedition.

Donald Mackenzie was not a member of the Ark-seeking industry. He was never part of an expedition with a budget worth tens of thousands of dollars. He had not partnered with pseudo-academics and film crews to record and direct his efforts. Mackenzie grew up on the Isle of Lewis off the West coast of Scotland. The home to Free Presbyterianism, it is a conservative and deeply religious place. But Mackenzie was an unruly young man—driving motorcycles, getting into bar fights, and flirting with a life in the military by joining the Territorial Army, a volunteer reserve cadre of the British Armed Forces. It wasn’t until 1991, at age 28, that his brother Derick convinced him to convert to Christianity in the wake of yet another drunken brawl.

After his conversion, Mackenzie began describing himself as a self-employed missionary. He traveled to Syria, Israel, and Turkey preaching the bible. Beginning in the early 2000s, he made regular trips to Mount Ararat in search of the Ark. He funded his trips through short term laboring jobs and kept costs low by climbing alone or with a trusted local friend. He once told his brother that if he could find the Ark, he could prove to the world that the Bible is true.

“There are plenty of things that could have happened to him,” says Selahattin Karabulut, our 36-year-old guide. “I cannot say anything [with certainty]… Maybe someone has killed him over money, maybe some wolf got to him, or maybe he’s left his equipment on the south face and gone to the north face and he’s fallen down an ice glacier or fallen into the gorge.”

We’re sitting below an overhanging boulder, sheltering from the brutal midday sun, about 1,500 feet below Mount Ararat’s Camp 1. At just after 10 a.m., our group of 12 climbers disembarked from a cramped mini-bus that coughed and sputtered for almost an hour up a dirt track to the trailhead.

Selahattin had been Mackenzie’s guide and friend when he first came here. In a video on YouTube, Mackenzie once described him as “a tough guy, very ready to hit someone with his fists.” But that’s not how he seems to me. Selahattin exudes a quiet intensity and he hikes like he talks: slowly and steadily, as if pacing out the distance on a sports field. He has a neatly trimmed beard, so black it looks as though he’s run shoe polish through it, and a gym-toned upper body. His looks, like his movements, are carefully crafted.

After climbing with Selahattin for four years, Mackenzie decided in 2006 that he knew enough about the mountain to save money and go it alone. It was a decision that left his friend feeling uneasy. “He was good at climbing, but he didn’t have very professional climbing gear,” Selahattin says. “He was like an amateur climber. He didn’t have crampons and no harness ropes.”

Sinan Halic, a gruff man and experienced climber who operates his own tours, was less charitable about Mackenzie when I spoke with him in Istanbul in April of this year. Halic pointed to a picture of Mackenzie in an Indiana Jones-style fedora and a casual winter jacket and said, “He’s not a climber, he’s a treasure hunter.”

Mackenzie first came to Mount Ararat in 2002, two years after the mountain re-opened to the public following a blanket ban on climbing by the military in the 1990s. But even after it opened, the region wasn’t entirely safe. The conflict, which has killed as many as 40,000 people, continued to simmer as Kurds struggled for rights and recognition. Firefights, roadside bombs, and kidnappings—on one occasion of climbers—were common.

But Mackenzie seemed happy at Ararat, according to people who knew him. “Donald had been there six times, he’d been there enough to make friends, enough to know the Kurdish culture and enough to know the mountain a bit,” says Amy Beam, who has run a tour company focused on Mount Ararat since 2007. He sometimes grumbled that nobody in town would exchange his Scottish pounds, or that locals, most of whom have an incomplete grasp of English, couldn’t understand his accent. But he made many friends in the guiding community. “Every time [he came], he stayed at my home and my wife cooked for him,” Selahattin says.

His relationship with the town was complex, however. While he was shown the hospitality customary of the region, his strident proselytising was also a source of tension. “He was coming and talking really bad about Islam and about Mohammed,” Selahattin says. “Many times I said, ‘Be careful, that’s not good. Some day, someone might kill you because Mohammed is a very important person for all Muslims.’ But he just said, ‘No, Jesus will protect me.’”

Ararat’s southwest face looms over the town of Dogubeyazit as a stout and singular sentry. When the British explorer James Bryce saw the mountain for the first time in the 19th century, he wrote that “no one who had ever seen it rising in solitary majesty far above all its attendant peaks could doubt that its summit must have first pierced the receding waves.” And this vision, of the flood and Noah’s Ark, still brings people to the town. There are up to 100 dedicated Ark-seekers who come in and out of Dogubeyazit, according to Halic. On top of that there are approximately 2,000 people a year who climb the mountain with an official permit, and just as many who climb it illegally.

4,000 visitors at most really drive the economy for 100,000 people

For Dogubeyazit residents, the mountain exerts a more practical pull. Amy Beam told me, “If there are no climbers, the horsemen have no work. If there are no tourists, the restaurants have no work, the hotels have no work, and the taxi drivers have no work. It’s an astonishing fact that 4,000 visitors at most really drive the economy for 100,000 people.”

While a fragile peace process is under way, there is hope that tourism can really take off. South of here, the Sirnak Culture, Tourism, and Development Foundation has announced plans to bring the replica ark used in the 2014 Darren Aronofsky film Noah to the region. Ararat is also seen as a big draw, an attraction that has the potential to transform a district where the average annual income is just $3,000. If peace really takes hold, “There will be thousands of people. Ararat can be really famous like Kilimanjaro when everything is safe,” says Halic, referring to the mountain in Tanzania that attracts 25,000 people each year.

I wake at Camp 1 to the milky pre-dawn sky. We are on a plateau not more than two football fields long and deep with a panoramic view over the plain below, Dogubeyazit to the southwest, and the craggy hills of Iran to the southeast. The red, yellow, and green star of Kurdistan and the acronym of the Kurdish rebels—PKK— are painted on a large boulder above the camp. Two sheep dogs with thick matted hair prowl with their heads bowed low to the ground like stooped old ladies.

Wolves eat humans up there quite regularly

“Did you hear the gunshots last night?” Selahattin asks me as he watches over a boiling samovar.

Yesterday, a German climber and a local nomad with a rifle stumbled across a mess of blood, organs, and bones as they were descending the mountain, according to Selahattin. Soon after, they saw the culprit in the distance. The nomad fired three shots, but the wolf escaped.

“They eat humans up there quite regularly,” Mackenzie had said of the wolves of Ararat in a tale captured on YouTube. He may have been exaggerating to impress his friends, but it is true that wolves have been known to kill both shepherds and sheep on the mountain. Some people have suggested that a wolf might have killed Mackenzie, but when I ask Selahattin about the possibility, he says, “If it was a wolf, there would be bones.”

And that’s one of the main problems: There are no bones. In the years since 2010, there have been a number of searches for Mackenzie, but his body has yet to be found. For Mackenzie’s family, there’s a sense that more could have been done at an official level. Others say it’s simply too dangerous to search for him. “I said to my business partner at that time that I wanted to go to Lake Kup and find out about Donald Mackenzie and what had happened,” says Amy Beam. “He said, ‘Leave that story alone, because it’s not clear if he died or if he was killed. And if you get close to the truth, you are going to be in danger.’”

Group ascent. Photo: Patrick Wrigley

From a distance, Mount Ararat looks like the famous Japanese oil painting of Japan’s Mount Fuji, a portent of both exaltation and oblivion. It is an arresting view. But once you are on the mountain, things change. Above Camp 1, at 10,500 thousand feet, you move into geological time. The pasture gives way to volcanic rock and the mountain is just plain ugly.

Numbed by the sun, putting one dusty foot in front of the other, we make slow silent progress. Then Selahattin points across a ravine to the west. “I found Donald’s tent over there at about 3,800 metres,” he says. “I knew it was his tent because I always hiked with him.” Selahattin’s brother, who had taken a shortcut off the main trekking route, was the first to see the tent. “It was damaged by the sun and he found some spoons, beans, and conserves in it. Nothing else. I don’t know, maybe someone discovered it before him. Maybe other people took his passport before my brother got there.”

If this really is the location of Mackenzie’s campsite, it is here, just below the snowline and the dizzying upper slopes of the volcanic cone, where he made his last call to his family. But if true, that also means Mackenzie was camping close to the site where NAMI claimed to have found Noah’s Ark. It was in this landscape, in the Red Canyon, where a NAMI video shows men in white hazmat suits and masks, as though on the set of a Hollywood crime drama, sliding into ice caves and touching large planks of wood.

Not long after Mackenzie went missing, local guides began suggesting that the discovery was a hoax orchestrated by one of their colleagues, Ahmet Ertugrul, known as Parasut (pronounced “Parachute,” for his droopy moustache that looks like the canopy of parachute), who had been hired by NAMI. Abdullah Kaya, a mountain guide who claims to have worked with Parasut and the NAMI mission, told me about the fraud he helped commit. In October 2009, he says, “We brought the wood of an old boat here from Erzurum (a neighboring state)… We took it up Ararat and put it inside an ice cave.” Abdullah left the scheme before the full deceit took hold, but he says the six-person team that perpetrated the fraud received “big money” from NAMI. (Repeated phone calls to NAMI’s Hong Kong offices went unanswered.)

This hoax Ark is now common knowledge among the guiding community in Dogubeyazit. “It was big cheating. I don’t know how much they made, but of course it was a lot because people are crazy. Whoever discovers Noah’s Ark, people will pay a lot for that,” Selahattin says.

Amy Beam also learned about the NAMI scam and began to uncover other information about Parasut. “He may have gone and done a deal with the Turkish government. I learned of it in 2011, they were going to get funded by the Turkish government to build a big [Noah’s Ark] museum [below the mountain], just like the big museum [of NAMI] in Hong Kong. That was before their fraud got exposed. Then the money was off the table.”

When the local press learned of the Hong Kong Ark announcement, they began to ask why Turkish provincial officials were present at the press conference. Ertugrul Gunay, the Turkish minister of culture and tourism, responded to local journalists that they were investigating the matter. The minister then added, “I think the claim that Noah’s Ark is on Mount Agri is more serious than the claim that gods lived on Mount Olympus. At least it is written in the holy books of three Abrahamic religions. The Ark’s location on our soil raises the historical and religious value of Turkey. This discussion increases the number of tourists.”

It’s hardly surprising that in a region of extreme poverty that is struggling to recover from a twenty-year conflict, tourism dollars are a high priority. But how this relates to the fate of Donald Mackenzie is less clear. “They need tourists to come to Ararat, and if people are going to be dying on the mountain, especially if they’ve been murdered, it’s not exactly going to boost the tourist industry from their point of view,” Derick says.

Mackenzie knew the risks of his Ark seeking and missionary work, according to his friend, Jeremy Wiles. But it seems to me, at least, that he was prepared to accept them because he had an unshakeable belief that the Ark was on the mountain. When Friedrich Parrot first summited Ararat, locals believed, like the Greeks with Mount Olympus and the Tibetans with Mount Kailash, that the act of climbing the mountain and looking for the Ark was close to blasphemy, a form of doubt and defilement. But in the modern marketplace of ideas, where religion is just one of a number of choices, relics have gone from being vessels with special powers, capable of warding off evil or transferring holiness, to potential pieces of evidence, supposedly underpinning the whole faith with fact. Mackenzie wanted proof, maybe not for himself, but for all the doubters. Speaking to his brother and friends, it’s clear that for Mackenzie the Ark was a silver bullet that would shatter the architecture of doubt with which science, rationalism, and the twentieth century was built.

From Camp 2 to summit. Photo: Patrick Wrigley

But having questioned my own motivations to be on the mountain, I like to think that something else was also at play. I am a comparatively well-off man in my mid-thirties, climbing with a group of well-off men in their thirties and forties. We are looking at our youth receding in the rear view mirror and desperately scrambling for something to fill the existential void. Some people choose Buddhism. Some people choose marathons. We choose mountains.

The British writer, Robert Macfarlane, in his wonderful treatise on the allure of altitude, Mountains of the Mind, writes, “Those who travel to mountaintops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.” Maybe Mackenzie wasn’t that different from us. Maybe he was also there to satisfy his old sense of adventure, to claim bragging rights with friends back home, and most importantly to feel the exhilaration of altitude and the sheer animal pleasure of physical exertion and danger. In German, there’s a word for this: funktionslust. The pleasure of doing what one does best. Maybe Mackenzie had tasted the addiction of that very basic and thoughtless act of putting one foot in front of the other.

“I see the rock and I say, ‘Okay, this is my bus stop,’” Stan says with a mighty laugh. He may be smiling, but the fear is still in his eyes. Somehow, he’d managed to direct his body into the only rock between himself and the boulder field hundreds of feet below and clung on.

Selahattin also dismisses the incident, but I watched him as he frantically stabbed at the snow with his walking pole. His face was contorted in a strange grimace of horror and disbelief. If I wasn’t sure before, I certainly know now that this is a dangerous mountain. We are on the easy southern route. The north face, where Mackenzie often climbed, is a whole different world of gorges, crags, ice slopes, and crevasses—dark pits where the mountain can hide its secrets.

I think about Selahattin’s glimmer of fear a lot in the weeks after my climb. It was a mask slipping, revealing a livelihood lost, an industry ill-prepared for the demands and follies of rich tourists. It seems to me that Mackenzie probably had an accident. It is the simplest explanation. But then in this region where unmarked graves from the Kurdish conflict dot the landscape and clan and political rivalries intersect with financial necessity in violent ways, I can’t completely dismiss the possibility of murder—for his missionary work, for his money, or perhaps for the threat he posed to the Ark hoax and the tourism dollars that would come with it.

Every guide I asked during my stay gave meandering answers outlining potential scenarios, but what they all really seemed to be saying was, “That question is foolish. You will never know why.”

What I do know is that climbing that mountain leaves a strong imprint on the mind. On the upper slopes, a couple of hours before you reach the summit, there is a phenomenon that Mackenzie must have seen many times. As the sun rises, for a brief window of time, the mountain casts a sharp-lined shadow on the land below. It is a spectacular sight, as though the Great Pyramid at Giza has been imprinted on the plain. Ararat is briefly incarnated as an ancient tomb. The monument reaches out towards Dogubeyzit, so that while we are in the light up here, down there, the villages are still in the mountain’s shadow.

*Some names have been changed at the request of those involved

Patrick Wrigley
Patrick Wrigley is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He has written for Outside, Al Jazeera, and Monocle. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickWrigley.
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