Taking a peak

  • Gerard Simonette, of Northampton, talks about his recent trip to Turkey an his hike up Mt. Ararat.

  • Gerard Simonette, of Northampton, talks about his recent trip to Turkey an his hike up Mt. Ararat. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gerard Simonette, of Northampton, talks about his recent trip to Turkey an his hike up Mt. Ararat. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gerard Simonette, of Northampton, talks about his recent trip to Turkey an his hike up Mt. Ararat. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gerard Simonette, of Northampton, talks about his recent trip to Turkey an his hike up Mt. Ararat. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Simonette talks about his hike at his home in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gerard Simonette, of Northampton, talks about his recent trip to Turkey an his hike up Mt. Ararat. Cover photo by Carol Lollis. Design by Nicole J. Chotain.

  • Ararat from start of climb Photo courtesy of Gerard Simonette

  •  Base camp at sundown Photo courtesy of Gerard Simonette

  • Mess tent at base camp. Photo courtesy of Gerard Simonette

  • The ascent up the glacier toward summit. Simonette can be seen wearing the blue jacket and red hat. Photo courtesy of Gerard Simonette

  • At high camp after summit.  Photo courtesy of Gerard Simonette

  • The group heads up the glacier towards the summit. 

  • Mess tent at base camp with Simonette (left) and the rest of the group. 

  • The group puts on crampon hiking footware at the base of  the glacier.  Photo courtesy of Gerard Simonette

  • The summit of Mt. Ararat.  Photo courtesy of Gerard Simonette

  • Cold temperatures brings out steam clouds on the Turners Falls side of the Connecticut River. Staff File Photo/Jeff Blake

Staff Writer
Published: 10/15/2019 8:35:09 AM

Conquering mountain peaks has been a part of Northampton resident Gerard Simonette’s life since the 1970s. Now 76, his past exploits have included Mt. Olympus in Greece and the 20,000-foot volcanic peak Nevada Parinacota in Bolivia.
But one mountain that had eluded him until this past August was 16,780-foot Mt. Ararat in western Turkey (made famous in the Bible for allegedly being the resting place of Noah’s Ark). Between 2016 and 2018, the militarized area where the mountain is located had been closed to foreign visitors.

Simonette seized the opportunity when the area was opened again and booked passage. He traveled for 16 days through the Republic of Georgia and Turkey with four of those days engaged in the actual trek up Mt. Ararat. Alongside him were a group of 15 other people from around the world. They overcame frigid weather and steep climbs to reach the summit.

There were five people from Latvia, three from Ukraine, one Hungarian, a Canadian woman living in the U.K, two Kurdish couples, two Turkish guides and Kathryn Keefe, a nurse working in Saudi Arabia originally from the Philippines.

Simonette was the only American and the oldest person on the trip to hike the Biblical Mt. Ararat. Most of the people on the journey were in their 30s and 40s, with one other man from the Ukraine in his mid 50s.

During the first day, the group hiked up to base camp at about 10,500 feet. On the second day, they went to the high camp (about 13,500), had lunch, and then hiked back to base camp in order to acclimate to the higher altitudes. It was during the third day that they camped at the high camp, and then on the fourth day they reached the summit.

“The last day is really a day and a half when you put it all together,” he explained. “They get you up at midnight. So, you have some breakfast, and then you’re out on the trail heading out.”

One of the reasons why high peak hiking groups typically start their journey midnight is because the ground is firmer at night and holds the rocks tighter together, he said. The heights of Mt. Ararat are covered year round by a glacier near the summit.

He added although it’s not considered a particularly difficult climb, the challenge is to adjust to the altitude and the freezing cold temperatures.

Keefe, the nurse from the Philippines who works in Saudi Arabia, wrote via email that during the four-day hike she was Gerard’s trail buddy.

“I was always next to Gerard either behind him or vice versa,” she wrote. “We had a lot of random conversations about climbing experience, about life, life In Saudi Arabia. Gerard was a strong climber (at) his age. I told him how I wish I will be strong like him when I reach that age. He (told) us stories about his climbing experience like when he was in Nepal. Along the trail he (taught) me the meaning of some signs of stones put on the trail.”

Simonette said it’s challenging for Keefe to work in Saudi Arabia, where there are more restrictions placed on women in society, but that she takes it in stride.

“She said that sometimes she’s walking on the street and a man will yell at her, ‘Cover your face.’ And she said, ‘I just yell back, If you don’t want to see my face, just cover your eyes,’” he recalled.

Gerard also shared a tent with a restauranteur from regal Latvia named Artis Ulmanis, who was in his mid-40s and has three children.

“He lives in the city, but he has a farm where he grows a lot of stuff that uses in his restaurant,” he added. “He was very helpful. He helped me out with setting up tents and even helped me out when we were on the top trying to get down that glacier. I’m very cautious going down. He got on one side of me and gave me a little support on one arm after he saw that I was going at a slower pace.”

The wind was blowing more than 30 miles per hour when Gerard and his group reached the glacial summit, Simonette said. He couldn’t see anything more than 20 or 30 feet in any direction, but despite this, he and others felt a sense of accomplishment, even though the weather meant that their stay at the peak was short-lived.

“The trail was a little more icy going up, so you had to be a little more careful because there was a frost on the stones,” he added. “And then when I got to the glacier, there was no soft cover at all. It was hard and rough because of all the wind. It wasn’t smooth.”

Keefe said she and Gerard both had difficulty descending on the steep trail.

“During our descent from the summit we were all exhausted, and I saw he was slowing down and two of our colleagues assisted him, but (I saw) on Gerard the spirit to keep on going, which inspired me that we can make it,” she added. “We all made it to the summit. Nobody was injured and we all got back in our own home in one piece. My climb on Mt. Ararat is (a) challenging and memorable experience in my mountaineering career.”

Keefe, who has been climbing mountains for two decades and a member of the Iloilo Mountaineering Club in the Philippines, said she felt a sense of belonging in the group.

“We all came from different regions, cultures, and religions but every time we are in the dining tent, I can say that we are one team, one culture — mountaineer culture.”

Simonette said though the elements were against the group celebrating on the peak, when they reached base camp, they spent the next day together visiting a palace from the 1600s and a hot mineral bath.

“We had a barbecue that night,” he added. “They grilled peppers and lamb and chicken. That’s what we kind of did to relax after. That was our parting.”

While sitting in his home in Northampton and holding a pair of spiked hiking boots used to grip the ice during his early morning treks up the mountain, Simonette said the experience of not only hiking the mountain, but being with the people he shared the experience with, will stay in his memories.

Political discussions

While Mt. Ararat was recently opened to foreign visitors, Simonette says it remains a restricted area.

“There’s still a military presence there,” he said. “In most countries in Europe, you can go from one to another, but in Turkey, in that area, about every 10 miles you have a military checkpoint. And if you’re on a bus, everyone has to hand in their papers.”

He left for the trip Aug. 16 and hiked in the Republic of Georgia to prepare for the Mt. Ararat climb, which took place from Aug. 24 to 28. On the way to Turkey, Simonette says he missed his bus in the Republic of Georgia, but found another traveling from Iran.

“I was the only non-Irani on this bus. They were coming back from their vacation. I got to speak with them. They were showing me pictures of their monuments and their mountains, inviting me, saying, ‘You really have to come to Iran. It’s a beautiful country.’ We talked a little politics. On their part, one of the women said that the sanctions have been hurting the country since Trump pulled out of the accord,” Simonette recalled.

In another instance, he met an Iranian college student on his way home through the Republic of Georgia who believed that the U.S. pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal was a good thing for his home country because it would make it more difficult for Iranian dictator Ali Khamenei to rule.

“They’re just like regular folk like anyone else,” Simonette added. “They’re showing their country. They’re showing that they’re welcoming. They had good humor. I couldn’t understand what they were saying being on the bus, but they were laughing and joking.”

A passion for mountaineering

Simonette started hiking in the 1970s while he was living on Long Island, New York, while working for the state of New York’s Department of Mental Health, where he retired as a treatment team leader.

He and his wife moved to the Pioneer Valley almost four years ago, during which time he’s hiked the volcanic 20,000-foot mountain Nevada Parinacota in Bolivia in 2016 as well as Greece’s Mt. Olympus in 2015. He also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 2008, the highest point in Africa at more than 19,300 feet.

“You get some spectacular scenery … There’s an adventure to it and the challenge of making it to the top,” he explained. “Of course, when you do get to the summit you have a feeling of accomplishment. But you have to work hard.

He continued, “I stay relatively fit throughout the year. I go the (YMCA) here in Northampton. I do some weight training and I do Zumba and spinning and swim laps in the pool. During the day, I usually get in a hike throughout here up in the hills. There aren’t too many big mountains, but you can get a great workout going on the Seven Sisters in Hadley and Amherst.”

But the world’s highest peak, Mt. Everest in the Himalayas, isn’t in the cards for Simonette.

After his mountaineering trip to Bolivia, he was stricken with frostbite on his index and middle fingers on his right hand (which he has since recovered from), and was bruised and scraped in a small tumble while trekking down the mountainside. After that experience, he promised his wife he wouldn’t be hiking 20,000-foot mountains again.

But for Simonette, his mountain climbing adventures aren’t over yet. On his list of peaks to climb in the future are Mt. Vesuvius in Italy and Mt. Fuji in Japan, both of which he’s drawn to because of their connections to history.

“Each time I go to see if I can still do it,” he added. “There’s always that. As long as I can still do it, I’m fortunate.”

Chris Goudreau lives in Greenfield. He can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.


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