Sverre Aarseth
Mountain skyline
All-Round N-Body Guy, Mountaineer and Wild-Life Enthusiast

Expedition report: Ararat adventures 2004

The original plan to climb Ararat as a group of four (Sverre Aarseth, Vahe Gurzadyan, Scott Tremaine, Patrick Weidman) was cancelled at the last moment because our Armenian member who had made all the applications was refused permission. However, with my ticket already paid for, I decided to join Vahe in an exploratory trip to Eastern Turkey in search of other objectives. On arrival in Yerevan before dawn 2 August I was driven to a stylish apartment one block off the Central Square (at $30 a night), where the previous occupant had been an ambassador. After a few hours rest we visited the Georgian Embassy for my transit visa application. Next call was the car insurance agent. A generous company director (friend of a friend) was lending Vahe a sturdy VW Golf, innocent of the punishments that would ensue. Now we made the embarrassing discovery that the ownership card was missing from the in-tray. A thorough search of the office and car yielded nothing. We learnt that a temporary document could be obtained in one hour from the police but this solution came to nothing since the relevant office was not open on a Monday. Hence our plan had to be put on ice and we set off for Buyarkan Observatory, located an hour's drive at 1500 m on the shoulder of Mt Aragats. Having suffered 35 degrees in the City below, the cold water fountain in the garden was much appreciated. After a brief meeting with the Director and introduction in Armenian by Vahe, I gave an informal talk under the benign gaze of the redoubtable Ambartsumian who founded the Observatory and was a long-time member of the Politbureau. In view of the unsolved car problem, we had to return instead of going up to the Cosmic Ray Station.

In the morning there was good news. Somebody had found the missing document attached to his papers and handed it in to the police. However, the police insisted on giving it to the Director in order to collect a reward, which resulted in further delays. In the meantime we visited the enormous market and filled several large bags with tomatoes, apricots, peaches and apples for the trip. (Armenia does not use fertilisers and fruits are delicious.) It was a relief to head for the hills. After the last village we passed several shepherd camps before reaching the Cosmic Ray Station at 3250 m. A quick walk revealed beautiful flowers close to snow, with the Aragats range behind. We had a chat with the Director who has been here for 30 years and enjoys the mountains in all conditions. Next morning we set off at a brisk pace, crossing several large fields of hairbells separated by snow and rocks. Reaching the col at 3880 m, I felt cold in the T-shirt. The summit tower reared up steeply almost 200 metres above and looked scary on first sight. However, the slope allowed an ascent by switchbacks, with plenty of firm grip and the summit was reached in 2 hr 40 mins from the Station. From Aragats West (4075 m) we looked across to the more technical Aragats North, at 4090 m the highest peak in Armenia, as well as the huge snow-filled crater. With one day lost but one summit gained, we had made a good start. The return was punctuated by photography of meadows so rich that the flowers were unavoidably crushed underfoot.

Setting out early next morning on the long road to Turkey, we were faced with an unusual problem. The car alarm could not be silenced so we had no choice but to descend in search of a policeman since Vahe assumed they have experience of catching car thieves. Further down, other cars treated us like an ambulance and pulled to the side. The main road seemed deserted until finally we were flagged down by a policeman. Except this one only wanted a lift and had no idea how to deal with our predicament. However, he directed us to a place where the security guard was able to disconnect the offending cable, causing the lights to shine instead. Further along an obliging electrician fixed the lights and so we entered Georgia, ready for new adventures. Paying the obligatory road tax of $40 for transit (validity 45 days), we now found that people were using dirt roads since the original one was in a dreadful state, with huge potholes. Soon this novel solution was not available and we had to follow a slalom course to avoid the worst bumps. The situation eased a bit after the first 20 km but got so bad inside the next city Akhalkalaki that we felt sorry for the inhabitants. The last bit before the border was in such a state of disrepair that I also felt sorry for the car. Although we were the only ones passing through, border formalities on both sides took some time since a number of offices were involved. It was a great relief to discover a nearly perfect road on the Turkish side which enabled rapid progress. After climbing to 2500 m, the weather changed in a dramatic way. We were exposed to heavy rain and incredible lightning discharges which later illuminated the whole landscape as with flash photography. At a critical junction we followed the sign for Kars which said 120 km and did not realize that going straight on would have been 70 km less. In the event, we reached the significant city of Kars around 10 and found a good hotel.

Next day, after a brief visit to the impressive castle we set off for Ani, some 40 km away. This huge ancient site has seen much history over the last 5000 years and many conquests. It faces a gorge where the river defines the border. Here we spent two hours visiting a number of well preserved 7th century churches, with only one having succumbed to earthquake. One building with spectacular views into the gorge had been a guest house on the fabled Silk Road. Now the Armenians can only look across from their side at the former glory of the capital of the Armenian Kingdom during the IX-X centuries which was overtaken by events. Further on, we tried to find the old ruined church of Tekor which was said to be inside a village close to the main road. At first it was difficult to get directions. A boy claimed to know and with a friend for safe company he directed us along the main road for a while until it became clear we were taken for a ride. After Vahe insisted it must be in the village, the same boy guided us on a five minute hike to some crumbling walls which acted as enclosure for the threshing. For this service the boy demanded 20 million Lira. I pointed out that two tickets for Ani had been half of this and offered one million, but this was refused. Vahe was concerned about repercussions from angry locals but almost $1 for this small service seemed generous enough and I stood my ground, whereupon we extricated ourselves from the fracas with principles intact.

Now we were about to embark on an adventure which would involve a much more forceful adversary. On reaching Igdir, some 150 km beyond Kars, we headed for an obvious hotel and asked to see the manager. It was Vahe's idea to stop on the way to the more touristic town of Dogubeyacit used for ascents of Ararat and explore the possibilities. I presented our proposition in rusty German which served the purpose. The manager sensed an opportunity of capturing two tourists for the night in his nearly empty hotel and took us to see his friend, the 'Burgermeister', who surely would grant the necessary permit. Unfortunately, the Mayor was out - probably drinking tea with his cronies - so we found the Director of tourism who unsurprisingly spoke no English or German. It transpired that he could not deliver the goods. On the other hand, he would not forbid an attempt either. We seized our chance and offered twice the amount asked ($20 each way) to be driven up to some unspecified location and be collected a few days later. On second thoughts, it occurred to us that the road may be bad. So for an extra fee the manager agreed to use his own sturdy truck and bring along a friend for company.

The use of a local car proved decisive next morning when we faced a tank controlling the vital road junction. The unsuspecting soldier allowed us to pass without checking and we started to ascend the mountain slopes. Keeping an eye on the altimeter, I was surprised to see the road levelling off at 2000 m. Within an hour of starting we had reached the end of the road and faced an obstacle in the form of an army camp. An English-speaking soldier was sent for and we entered into discussions without stating our real objective. It soon became clear that any serious climbing attempt was off the menu. We were offered the guard room for sleeping on the floor but declined and beat a retreat until the camp disappeared from view. Luckily, the newly hatched plan of heading up the hills without being spotted had several drawbacks, not least the fact that our driver was concerned about getting into troubles with the soldiers. He also muttered something about dangerous bears which we conveniently ignored. At this crucial moment for making a decision, we thought it best to return for further negotiations and come clean with our intentions. Either they allow us to climb or we leave. So back we went and were now met by the Commander who made himself understood. Still holding back the vital fact, we presented ourselves as scientists with an interest in looking for clues to recent reports about Noah's Ark. Unknown to us, the driver or his companion had hinted we might be seeking treasures and this created some doubts in the Commander's mind. However, he now invited us to share a room inside the camp and our minders departed. We were allowed to visit a nearby hill with an old fort but told to be visible. On return, the Commander appeared more friendly, presumably having checked on our credentials or luggage. After further discussions in the office, he suggested that we could stay the night and climb the next morning subject to daytime return. Surprisingly, he asked us to bring back summit pictures. Then, and also the next day, he motivated his hospitality and decision without precedent to allow us to enter a closed zone by his respect for us as scientists. Moreover, later on he stated that he had convinced his boss and asked us to write supporting letters to Ankara (but only mention one night's hospitality). We then joined the soldiers for dinner and tea. A local Kurd named Ahmet was assigned as our guardian. The condition was that we should be back before darkness but this could always be interpreted liberally since he carried a mobile phone.

We set off around 5 a.m. with only a tomato for breakfast. Ahmet carried a rifle and belt of ammunition as well as my day pack. The Commander did not comment on the curious walking sticks used by the foreigners - Vahe had brought two ice axes from the mountaineering club after telling me to leave mine behind. We went up steep grass slopes and my need for water breaks as well as a general feeling of weakness affected progress. At 3100 m it became clear that I could not maintain the pace and, with time being at a premium, the other two should be given a chance. We had just met a shepherd who brought me down to his camp at 3000 m and the others took off. The need for an escort became clear on approaching the camp which was guarded by three ferocious dogs acting as bear defence. Even the shepherd had to throw stones and shout in order to calm them down. Consequently, I spent my time safely inside the compound which gave ample time for observing a unique life-style. Without a single word of Kurdish, essential communication was still possible and my two guardians were happy with the idea of receiving pictures of themselves and the huge flock of sheep. Ahmet and Vahe returned around 3, having reached 4800 m on the snow cap when time ran out. On the way down, Ahmet checked the vital water pipe-line which starts from the plateau and supplies the local community as well as the army camp. We made it back to 1950 m in time for a cold shower and were invited for special barbecue dinner outside with the Commander and three officers. Remarkably, this was the first time that tourists (including locals) had dined with the officers. At this stage we were on first-name terms and Vahe increased the goodwill by beating the champion at table tennis. Given the time constraints and the military presence (with continuous surveying from watch towers), the gamble to climb Ararat had almost succeeded so we could be pleased.

In the morning we were ready to leave on the daily bus. On saying good-bye to the Commander, Vahe pushed our luck to the limit by asking whether we might have another climb but spend the next night in the shepherd's camp. Amazingly, this wish was granted. Ahmet was told to cancel his city trip and be available for departure at 3 p.m. We enjoyed a leisurely morning tour to the nearby destroyed church and hilltop fortress. After a good lunch and rest I felt in great shape and we reached the 3000 m camp in under 3 hours. Unfortunately the shepherds did not show up until late and we were unable to brew tea. Trying to sleep under the stars proved difficult because of the noisy dogs (who sleep during the day). We could see the lights of Yerevan, only 40 km away without Vahe able to call home on the mobile phone. Our departure is delayed - there is some talk of a bear - but we set off at 4.30 on completely empty stomachs (a big mistake). Further up, Ahmet points to bear tracks but not clear when they were made (he has shot three). Around 3500 m I realize we will run out of time again at the present pace with short breaks - we have been told to be back by 3 and the taxi has been booked for 4. Hence to have a chance of the summit, the strongest pair must proceed in one push. This is a tall order but Ahmet (now 43 years) has done the whole climb from 2000 m in a super-human 4 1/2 hours and Vahe (48) has trained with the best former Soviet climbers and is in great shape after the previous attempt two days ago. We move up to 3800 m which is judged safe from bears, whereupon my companions depart a bit before 7. I see them disappear behind the ridge around 4200 m at 8 a.m. and have plenty of time for the beautiful spring flowers.

Much to my surprise they emerge some 3 hours later and reach my site by 11.40. I fear the Commander has ordered a retreat on the mobile phone and am overjoyed to hear of the summit success in such a short time. Ahmet was given instructions of how to handle the ice axe properly and one crampon was fitted on his well worn training shoe. Vahe used the other crampon and crossed the bergschrund and several snow bridges carefully with Ahmet. They practically never stopped during the ascent, except for putting on crampons. The upper snow slope was long but quite gentle, culminating in a featureless area without any markers. An altitude of 5130 m was measured on top, close to the correct value of 5165 m. The hardest part was therefore the next 400 m and getting onto the glacier. We now enjoyed a well deserved celebratory meal, with departure at noon. On the way down we spotted Abdullah's sheep on the far side of the large plateau. We stopped at his temporary camp but unfortunately had to decline the offer of tea. The army camp was reached at 3, with enough time to shower and pack before heading down to Igdir. We had been extremely lucky in the choice of Ahmet as our companion and his friendly attitude enhanced our experience. In retrospect, one hour more would have sufficed to get me up but the rapid ascent was also unexpected. Moreover, having had less acclimatization than the other two and going on an empty stomach undoubtedly contributed to my weakness.

Next day - our last in Turkey - also proved eventful. We drove 40 km towards Dogubeyacit to look for an ancient stone monument. This provided us with an opportunity of seeing the tourist route which looks easy and boring compared to the Armenian side. The local road-sign showed 9 km so we carried on past some villages on deteriorating roads. Conflicting advice from shepherds led us on a wild goose chase until we found a better road which after an extra hour brought us back to the first village, only 3 km from the main road. The standing stone with a round hole pointing to the summit of Ararat and carved crosses from later epochs was duly photographed and we set course for Georgia at great speed while watching the big mountain change perspective. Further along we passed numerous stalls with water melons. At this stage we had become dollar tourists without a single Lira remaining. Our offer of two packets of soup as barter was accepted and we devoured one half each on the spot. Now Vahe wanted to make another small detour to see the unique 7th century church of Mren which was described in a whole book some time ago. We located the correct village on the second attempt. A bit further along, the road only became fit for tractors but the church was clearly visible in the distance. Because of its importance, Vahe decided to go on foot, leaving me as guard. I was soon surrounded by boys begging for apples and the scene threatened to turn ugly when my generosity dried up. Two hours later, Vahe returned exhausted after jogging about 10 km in the heat. He found that the paintings had been defaced and stones removed, leaving the church in a precarious state for the next earthquake. Hence the unfortunate location of being slightly on the wrong side of the border will eventually spell doom for this priceless heritage.

Hurrying along the main road to make up time can also be dangerous. At one place, some boys had placed a row of bricks across the road which we avoided miraculously. Kars was reached for a late lunch. On stepping out, Vahe's passport was missing. Such a loss would land us in big trouble at the border and it was a great relief to find it on the floor of the car. Now we took the direct road and reached the Turkish border at 7. My transit visa was due to expire at midnight and the Georgians tried to argue but shied away from asking for money. However, Vahe silenced them, saying this was our problem at the exit. Still, they got their pound of flesh in the form of another $40 road tax, again valid for 45 days. After 25 km of bad road in rain we reached the first town Akhaltzikhe and eventually located an acceptable hotel. At the exit from Georgia the next day the border guards were most obliging and let me go without any hassle after Vahe named his local contact and stressed the importance of his travelling companion. It was a pleasure to repay the compliment by allowing three soldiers to shake my hand, not to mention having my passport age queried. One more $30 entry visa which the Armenians imposed reluctantly according to regulations and we were on familiar territory with better roads, limping back to Yerevan by 5 with fuel problems but the car undamaged after 1200 km.

The next two days were cultural as well as relaxing. Having been portrayed as a famous Cambridge professor along the way, I was not in a position to turn down a TV interview for a future documentary on visiting scientists. I reported on our trip and gave credit to the Turkish military for assistance without naming names or the summit. Hopefully, such efforts may one day lead to the border opening for free interchange. The afternoon was spent at the impressive national treasure, Matenadaran (Institute of Ancient Manuscripts) which houses some 17,000 old manuscripts, including unique translations of lost Greek texts. A large statue of the remarkable Mesrob Mashots looks out on the wide avenue named after him. He might be considered the world's first post-doc since the King sent him on a two-year trip abroad in order to construct a new alphabet. This he achieved in 404 AD and the original 36 letters remain intact (two have been added). We were also shown several old illustrations of Noah's Ark and even one of Ararat itself.

My last full day was spent visiting the holy city of Echmiadzin some 30 km outside Yerevan. This area contains three ancient churches dating back to 301 AD, each built over the tomb of a female martyr. The Cathedral itself is considered the spiritual centre for all Armenians spread over the globe and has been preserved since the 7th century. A service was in progress, with much chanting. I noticed a basket containing grapes and a bottle of wine being carried out. Vahe used his influence to get us invited for a tour of the Patriarch's Palace - his tradition dates back even longer than the Pope who maintains a friendly relation. A priest showed us round many fine rooms and works of art, including unique Russian icons. The highlight was undoubtedly the alphabet in thick gold, with each letter containing elaborate jewelry mounted on a large onyx slab which was kept in a safe. At this stage Vahe mentioned that we were coming from Ararat, and also the connection with the original ascent which took place on the Armenian side and started here. The priest seemed a bit confused and reminded us that the ongoing festival with blessing of grapes and wine that we had already witnessed (and would culminate next day) was in fact named after Noah himself. According to the legend, Noah came down from Ararat and planted the first seeds of grape in the fertile valley. This amazing coincidence seemed a fitting end to our remarkable journey which now had come full circle.

Postscript. The original climb of Mt Ararat was done in 1829 by Parrot (Dorpat, present Tartu) and Abovian (Armenia). The expedition started from the holy city and the campaign lasted a month, supported by two soldiers and two peasants with pack horses. After two failed attempts they succeeded on the route now repeated by Vahe and Ahmet. Notably it was the first recorded ascent of a 5000 m peak. This side of Ararat has been closed to foreigners since 1920 so other recorded climbs of the historical route may be scarce. On the traditional route for guided tourists, the first night's sleep is at 3250 m, followed by a hike to 4200 m and return. The third night is spent at 4200 m, with an early start for the summit (5-6 hrs) and return to camp 1. Hence by our standards, this schedule would be quite easy. Finally, on my visit to Vahe's cosmology group in the Physics Institute I could see the whole original route clearly from his office.

PPS. It was a special pleasure to visit the Tigran Petrosian Chess Club in Yerevan (also home to Karpov). Although quite rusty after 20 years of inactivity, I managed to beat some respectable players.

Following further research, my companion now claims that our ascent of the original route was in fact the second.

Sverre Aarseth (7/9/04)


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