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Published: November 9th 2011
The furthest east outpost of the Ancient Greeks, built around the year 0.
It had been a tough walk. In fact it had been one of the most difficult one-day walks of my life. It began inauspiciously when our 5am taxi ran out of fuel halfway up the extinct volcano. For some reason he tried to chug the ancient Lada – the only car to be seen in in Armenia – up the rest of the steep winding road using the fumes in the carburettor. Finally we drew to a standstill, although it was hard to tell as we had been progressing at less than walking speed anyway, as a potentially lift giving minibus crawled up the road behind us. We paid our driver anyway; out of sympathy because I had no idea how he would get back to civilization. However, I didn’t have that much sympathy as he knew it was a long climb up Mount Aragats and he had checked the amount of fuel he had using the flame of a cigarette lighter to peer into the tank when we climbed onboard in Yerevan an hour earlier in dark.
The minibus contained a mix of Slovenes, Germans and Italians; in the country for a wedding, who fancied something a bit physical
to try and sweat out the vast quantities of fine Armenian brandy (Churchill’s favourite) they had consumed during the celebrations.
We were soon at the top end of the twenty-seven kilometre cul-de-sac at a bizarre Mad Max type hamlet of domed buildings, satellite dishes and rusting machinery. This is where the hike would begin and end being the closest road head to the top. The wedding party were going to climb to the south summit, the closest to Kari Lake, however, Yuto and I had our hearts set on the north summit – at 4090 metres it is the high point of Armenia.
We didn’t have a map – there is no map. We didn’t have a guide – guides in Yerevan insist on taking two days or more to reach the north summit and I thought, after extensive internet research (summitpost.org) that it was possible in a day. I like a challenge, and, as a rule, I don’t like walking with guides. I like to walk as quickly as I want and stop where and for as long as I want, not be dictated to like “We must stop and have lunch now.” “But it’s 1000 in
Looking into the crater of Mount Aragats after an already knackering climb knowing that in order to ascend the highest point on the other side we would first have to drop into the bottom.
the morning.” “We always have lunch here, you walk too fast.” (An example from Mount Cameroon).
Soon the path disappeared and we realised a guide would have been really helpful. The route had been memorised after reading lots of trip reports: Go through the pass to the west of the south summit, descend into the crater then ascend to the ridge between the north and east summits then follow it westwards to the top.
It sounded simple enough. It wasn’t. I had a compass but I couldn’t tell which of the many slight peaks on the ridge ahead of us was the south summit. We ascended directly for the closest low point in the ridge ahead hoping that this would be the gap into the crater that we required. It wasn’t. This ridge was merely a spur coming down from the crater rim and we still had a long way up to go after a long traverse to the west.
The effects of the altitude soon kicked in; understandable at almost 4000 metres. The terrain didn’t help; large and sharp basaltic boulders, often as big as a garden shed. Progress was slow and tiring, hopping
In the Crater of Mount Aragats
The altitude, the lack of a path or map, the fog, the ash terrain, the steepness, the snow, the hail then the lightning made this one of the hardest one day walks of my life. Pretty flowers though.
ever upwards between these black jagged rocks and over leg-swallowing ankle-twisting cracks and gaps.
I’d given up waiting for Yuto to catch up. That might sound harsh but everyone has their own hiking style when climbing: his was slow and steady, mine is quicker with frequent reward stops when I reach a particular point ahead. The altitude meant my heart was audibly pounding in my chest when climbing but would take only a minute or so to get back to normal when I rested.
When I reached the ridge I had quite mixed feelings. The view was fantastic across the deep partially snow-filled crater with the four prominent peaks at each cardinal point of the compass clearly visible. However, the crater was much wider and deeper than I expected (about 4km wide by 750m deep) and the north peak looked impossibly high, steep and distant. As I tucked into chocolate croissants and bananas Yuto appeared grinning and pointing across at the seemingly unobtainable summit. “We climb that one, yes?” he asked. “Yep. What do you think?” “Wow! Let’s go.” And off he went. Looks like second thoughts were exclusively mine so I followed him along the crater rim.
Well Done Yuto!
On the summit of Armenia's highest mountain: Mount Aragats, 4090m. 11 hours to struggle up and then struggle down again.
We soon saw the gap into the crater and realised we had climbed too high and would have to detour back down the mountain and round to get to the narrow pass.
In the pass was a single tent and a group of Russians up there for a week. They had arrived the previous day and some were laid up suffering from the altitude while others scaled the west summit. They had carried several tents up to this point but had decided to all sleep in one given how cold it got during the night. The amount of vodka they’d brought should have helped and I was further impressed by the giant watermelons lugged up the mountain that were also deemed necessary for the expedition.
By now the distant clouds were rolling in quite quickly and had it not been for Yuto’s enthusiasm I might have considered giving up on the north summit. His enthusiasm waned a little when he saw the compacted snow slope that we’d have to traverse to descend into the crater. Lacking crampons and sticks we edged gingerly across the slope, kicking in little foot holds, until I tired of the slow progress
Stoat on Mount Aragats
A little friend I made.
and slid straight down on one foot while squatting using my other leg extended in front of me as a brake – a technique perfected over the numerous occasions that I wandered lost in Slovenia’s Triglav National Park impatiently waiting for summer to arrive.
Upon reaching the bottom of the crater, via further snowy traverses, ash slides and lava boulder clambers, the clouds had reduced the visibility to about ten metres. We would be navigating purely with a compass, not that a path existed anyway. But if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know in which direction to walk. Again, everything was telling me to go back but I am very stubborn when it comes to mountains and the occasional fleeting glimpse of our lofty quarry through odd clear pockets in the fog kept me going.
Photos taken when we first reached the rim proved invaluable. Follow the yellowy ash up through the black ash to a snowy tongue, cross it and follow a gully up to the opposite rim. This we did – visibility wasn’t so bad that we couldn’t see the ground beneath us. Then follow the ridge to the summit. At this point
Khor Virap Monastery sitting in the shadow of Mount Ararat.
It is from here that Armenia was proclaimed as the world's first officially Christian country in AD301 after a chap called Gregory was buried down a well for 12 years and survived then cured the king of madness.
we found traces of a path and for the first time since actually seeing the peak, many hours earlier, I began to think that we might just get to the top.
That feeling didn’t last long. This final climb was up steep pebble to football sized scree. For every two steps up you slid one step down. It was never-ending, the peak was never in site and the strength sapping altitude and cold biting wind chilling your oozing sweat made it thoroughly demoralising. Just as when I’ve been in similar situations in the past, I started to question my motives...
I’d been in Armenia for four days and had loved every minute. The day before I had visited the 2000 year old Garni Temple, the easternmost outpost of the Ancient Greeks. I’d then trekked along a canyon, walled with Giant’s Causeway-esque hexagonal interlocking basalt columns. When we reached the gated entrance to the nature reserve we were enthusiastically embraced and ushered inside by the park ranger and his mate who fed us with chicken shashlik
washed down with homemade beer and endless vodka shots. Zero shared language didn’t affect their attempts at conversation or generosity. We had trekked
Friendly chaps building a roof.
on and up through meadows of flowers, past intricately carved stones known as khatchkars
, to the ruined remains of Harvoots Gar Monastery where we settled in the shade to escape the baking heat.
What I would have given to be settling in the shade to escape baking heat and participating in the famed hospitality of the region rather than arrogantly trophy hunting in trying to climb the country’s highest mountain. There are enough ancient churches and monasteries in Armenia as well as lakes and hills and other sights to satisfy a lengthy and rewarding trip around the whole country so what was I doing, thoroughly p*** off, up here?
Then suddenly I was on the top. Or I thought I was. At least I could see nothing higher through the mist. Old illegible graffiti covered the highest looking stone that was wrapped in odd hiking paraphernalia and I settled down on it to devour some strawberry cake while I waited for Yuto. He soon arrived admitting that he too had been questioning his sanity up that last incline.
The relief at getting to the top was short-lived. Rather than elation there was a sense of trepidation knowing
In a country full of ancient churches and monasteries, this one could be my favourite because of the dramatic setting.
that the descent would actually involve rather a lot of ascent. All that we had slid and skipped down on our way into the crater would have to be scaled.
We didn’t hang around long on the top, there was no view anyway. The steep and loose scree slope did lend itself to a bounding run with intermittent (semi)controlled slides. It was great fun and I was back at the ridge in about fifteen minutes. It had taken two hours to get up. The gentler slope to the crater bottom also didn’t take long and we passed through carpets of colourful wild flowers that we’d somehow missed on our way up.
Fortunately, while refilling our bottles in the stream of melt water, the clouds temporarily parted giving us a 360 degree view of the crater and the peaks. We felt quite smug looking at what we’d achieved and, though pleased that we could now see the route out through the little pass, it seemed like one hell of an elevation gain.
The climb was a struggle. Not as steep or as loose as the ascent to the peak but it was difficult to find a route through
the great boulders and our legs had jellified after the previous climb and running descent. Then it started snowing. More accurately it was hail blowing pretty much horizontally straight into our faces. The frozen snow slopes that we had slid down were too steep to climb without crampons – I got so far up one of them, kicking in steps and prodding in my gloved fingers but soon slipped and slid back down ungracefully face first – so we had to climb over the jagged rocks to get above them.
At the top of the pass I was looking forward to a vodka watermelon pick-me-up, however, disappointingly, the Russians had moved on to another camp. Despite being utterly knackered I could now feel satisfied that the hard work had been done and it was just a gentle downhill amble back to Kari Lake.
I thought the dangerous sections of the trek were well behind us when the thunder started. It was eerie. Rather than coming from high above us as thunder usually does, because we were once again completely enveloped with cloud, it seemed to come from all around us. For the first time on the walk I
Armenia's Wine Region
The best and biggest peaches ever along with homemade fruit wine for sale in old coke bottles on a road-side stall.
started getting nervous. Give me a cliff, ice, falling rocks, steep climbs, snow, whatever, any day over lightning.
This may sound a little irrational, indeed when I was first told that the biggest killer in Slovene mountains (I used to live in Slovenia) wasn’t falls, or the cold or falling rocks but was in fact lightning, I found it hard to believe. Until I learnt the Slovene word for lightning; strele
, and started to pay more attention to the little memorial plaques that litter the more popular mountains. Most poignant was the last time I climbed Mount Triglav: While having a breather near the top I noticed a discreet plaque right next to me in memory of a sixteen year old girl killed by strele
that very day seven years earlier.
As the rumbles and cracks of thunder and lightning made us repeatedly jump out of our skin while our hair stood on end, we strode down the mountain trying to lose height as quickly as possible, losing each other occasionally in the swirling mist. The slope eased, the terrain became more grassy and after a couple of hours we were beneath the cloud and could see the
"Devil's Causeway"-esque scenery around Garni Temple.
Or if you prefer; interlocking hexagonal basaltic columns. Either way, quite impressive.
strange structures from whence we had set off.
Yuto continued to apologize in his typically Japanese excessively polite manner for holding me up but there is no way I would have attempted this walk on my own and the twice that I considered turning round it was his idea to keep going. Thus I am most grateful to him for coming along and for trusting that I had the slightest idea where we were going.
We arrived back at Kari Lake eleven hours after we’d set off, wobbly legged but content. Yuto’s altimeter revealed an overall elevation gain of 2000 metres despite the fact that Kari Lake is at 3190 metres and the north summit is 4090 metres. Those detours and that dip into the crater really add up. The dilemma of how to get back to Yerevan was quickly solved when we got chatting to a Czech couple who had just arrived. In exchange for passing on our findings about the route they persuaded the chap who had driven them up the twenty kilometre cul-de-sac to give us a lift down. This he was happy to do – for a few quid. He wasn’t going all the
way to Yerevan but he chased down a taxi on the motorway to carry us the rest of the way.
The highlight of this five-week three country summer holiday was to be Georgia. Armenia only appeared on the itinerary because pal who I was meeting could no longer come as early as expected but I wasn’t prepared to hang around after the two weddings, the reason I’d returned to the UK, so I looked into where I could go on my own for a week first. I don’t remember why but I chose Armenia. Mount Aragats was just one of the reasons why I may well have fallen for this little ancient land.
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