Armenia: vodka, thunderstorms and hiding from wolves

April 2016

This was a real mess of a mountain climb.


After a couple of days in Tbilisi, Georgia, I decided to make a brief detour into Armenia. My plan was to climb the snowcapped strata-volcano Mount Aragats (4090m), modern Armenia's highest point. With deep snow present and a long approach to the base, I planned for a two day climb.


When I arrived in the nearby village of Byurakan with a fully laden expedition pack, many locals seemed keen to tell me something, but the language clouded their message. So I continued on my way. As I reached the last shop in the village though, the shopkeeper took me inside. With time, he and his friends managed to warn me that the snow was extremely deep, and that the mountain was plagued by avalanches. With the summit lost behind clouds, and after my near miss last time, I decided to heed the local advice. I think it proved to be the right decision.


The shopkeeper offered me a coffee, before his wife prepared a delicious feast for the two of us. I was quickly introduced to Armenian vodka, several times, until the old shopkeeper and I were best of friends, and Anglo-Armenian relations were bilaterally secured.


At 2pm, I caught a marshrutka (minibus) to the larger town of Ashtarak, whereupon I had two options: go back to my hostel in Yerevan, or climb another mountain. Filled with Dutch courage, foolishness or otherwise, I chose the latter.


I caught a taxi to the base (1700m) of Mount Araler, the shorter sibling of Aragats. Here was a grey and barren landscape and what looked like the outskirts of a gypsy village. I made good headway up a long, sloping ridge, reaching 2500m at around 6.30pm. My plan was to camp here. As I looked south though, I saw the approach of one of the biggest, darkest storm fronts I've ever seen. It was sweeping in quickly and nightfall was an hour away. I had to get off the mountain.


I fastened my waterproofs and quick-marched 1km along the ridge to reach the summit (2585m). I checked my GPS and took a bearing to the nearest village, knowing that some kind Armenians would probably take me in.


I was in the centre of the storm now, and it was utterly brutal. By 9pm it was completely dark and visibility was down to ten metres or so.


By luck, just then, I approached a half-constructed concrete building, which would provide my shelter for the evening. It was dry, fairly warm, and once I'd shooed away some mice and barricaded the entrance (this is wolf country), it proved a great place to sleep for the night.


I continued to the village this morning once the storm was over, and travelled back to Yerevan to conclude my Armenian adventure!


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© Oliver France