Words: Mike Whitfield. Photos: Dominique Taylor.
Last fall I received a Skype call from my friend Mats in Sweden. Mats and I have travelled the world together and he called to discuss the possibility for another snowboard adventure, this time traveling to Turkey to ride. We made plans to embark on a journey to splitboard in the Kacker Mountains, which are located in the north eastern part of Turkey, with the Black Sea to the north and the country of Georgia to the east. With the election of Donald Trump in the US, as well as rising political turmoil in Turkey, we decided it was best if we went with a reputable guide rather than explore the area by ourselves.
In early March, Dominique and I flew to Istanbul to meet up with Andreas and Mats. From there we headed to Erzurum, the biggest city in the north eastern part of the country and, in a country known for it’s more moderate approach to Islam, a decidedly more conservative part of Turkey. Here we met our guides for the week, Yuksel Yilmaz, the owner of the guide company, Yildo, an internationally seasoned ski mountaineering guide and his best friend, Mustafa, also a seasoned mountaineering guide of Turkey.
From Erzurum we drove five hours to reach the small remote town of Yaylalar. Perched 8,500 feet above sea level and surrounded by snow capped peaks, this ancient town boasts 25 year round residences and four mosques. We stayed at a family run pension and it was from here we departed daily, hiking through the village to the base of our tours, where we would begin our climbs.
Due to an unstable snow pack, the size of the mountains and our remoteness, we did tours up to 11 miles but chose to stay on low angle terrain amongst big mountains. Splitboarding up through old growth forests to wide open bowls and ridges we were acutely aware that while the conditions were challenging, caused in part by heavy snowfall and unusually warm temperatures, the potential for amazing snowboarding was limitless. Long days of hiking were rounded off with amazing home cooked Turkish meals prepared by our host’s family and fierce games of Yahtzee, a game that crosses all language barriers. So while we lamented the conditions, the hospitality of the people and the experience became the highlight of Yaylalar.
Halfway through the trip we received reports that cold snow had fallen near Erzurum. Looking to find the best snow conditions and get us the best bang for our buck, it was decided amongst our guides and us that we should relocate back to the city, known for its rich culture and history as well as having the biggest ski resorts in the country.
Over the course of several days, our guides navigated the best places for us to ride, eat, and experience this very unique ancient culture. We rode two different resorts, meeting plenty of interesting characters, including an incredibly knowledgeable, friendly and generous Turkish reality TV star. Everywhere we went we were treated like family, with hugs, warm smiles and genuine laughter. We divided our time riding in this region utilizing splitboards, chair lifts and even got a ride up the mountain in a grooming cat to rest our heavy legs.
There are so many memorable moments that come from traveling to a place like this that it's difficult to summarize the experience, but here's a humorous spin on it. Before we left for this particular journey, the general consensus among Americans was “aren't you afraid, it seems dangerous to travel to that part of the world.” Being experienced travelers that have splitboarded around the world, we all agreed. When we arrived to Turkey, we were representing 3 different countries: Sweden, New Zealand and the United States. Ironically, when I shared that I had traveled from the US, the most common reply was “are you afraid back home, it sounds like a very dangerous place, welcome to Turkey.” I guess it’s all a matter of perspective, and mine has definitely shifted after experiencing Turkish culture firsthand.