Armenia, Aragats Lerr

Aragats Lerr – 13,419

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On the summit

Eric Gilbertson
August 2, 2016

Day 1 – Fly Moscow -Yerevan, rent a car, drive to trailhead and sleep there.
Day 2 – Start hiking 5am, summit 8am, hike over to southeast peak, then hike back to trailhead in rain
Day 3 – Drive from trailhead camp to Yerevan at 4am, and catch 6am flight back to Moscow

Matthew and I had been climbing mountains in Russia for the past two weeks, and had to part ways on the morning of August 1. Matthew was heading back to the US for a week, while I had an extra week of hitting more country highpoints.

I landed in Yerevan that afternoon, and picked up a rental car from Budget. The employees met me at the arrivals, and said they had a surprise for me. They had upgraded my rental from a small economy car to a big SUV. This was good news! I didn’t expect the road to the highpoint, Mt Aragats, to require an SUV, but I was planning to sleep in my car for a few nights. It can be uncomfortable sleeping sitting up in a little car, but with this SUV I could plan on folding down the back seats and getting a few nights of excellent sleep.

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Authentic Aragats drinking water

Outside the airport I stopped at a gas station and loaded up on some food for the next few days – fresh bread, sliced meat, cookies, and pita chips. I also picked up a big 5L bottle of Mt Aragats spring water, an appropriate selection for my climb.

My timing arriving in Yerevan was a bit inconvenient because there were currently big political protests in the downtown area, but luckily the airport was far enough away that I plans were not affected. I drove west out of town to Vagharshpat, then turned north through Oshakan and Agarak. I passed through small towns, then through open farmland and onto the forested southern slopes of Mt Aragats. As I drove higher the towns became less frequent, and I was eventually above treeline on grassy slopes.

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Campsite at Kari Lake

An afternoon thunderstorm rolled in, and a brief downpour of rain hit me as I pulled into the road end at Kari Lake. Surprisingly, I could see patches of snow on the hillsides above me, still left over from winter. Unfortunately there was no snow at Kari Lake, though, despite it being at 10,000ft elevation.

There is a cosmic ray research station on one side of the lake that is off limits to the public, and on the other side is a small hotel and restaurant. Camping is allowed if you walk past the hotel to the open grassland, but in the pouring rain I was content to just sleep in my SUV. I parked on the edge of the lake, ate a dinner of Armenian bread and salami, and went to bed at sunset. I hadn’t slept the previous night, since Matthew and I had taken a 2:30am flight out of Mineralnye Vody, so had no trouble falling asleep quickly in the SUV.

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Looking down at Kari Lake at sunrise

The weather forecast was for afternoon thunderstorms the next day, and I planned to get an early start to get off the mountain before the storms came. I woke up at 4:30am and was walking by 5am. I rounded the lake and started hiking up the hillside, aiming for the faint outline of the mountain. The sun gradually rose around 5:30am and the skies were completely clear.

I walked up through grassy slopes, then skirted around some large snow patches. After scrambling through some talus I stumbled upon a trail that took me all the way up to the crater rim. Mt Aragats is an old volcano, with several peaks along the Caldera. I was near the peak on the southwestern edge of the crater, while the higpoint was on the northern tip. From the crater edge I peered down, and saw many gullies still filled with snow between me and the summit.

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Snowy terrain between me and the summit

I had opted not to bring any crampons or ice axe, sending it all back to the US with Matthew, and was wondering if I might regret that decision. It looked, though, like I might be able to weave around most of the snow to gain the ridge up to the summit.

I followed the trail down to the col between the west and south summits, then carefully walked down an icy snow slope into the caldera. After leaving the snow slope I hiked down scree and talus to the bottom of the caldera, crossed a small stream, then started climbing up the east edge. The slopes here were pretty easy, and I soon reached the col between the southeast summit and the true summit.

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View of the scramble from the false summit to the true summit

Here I found a climbers path going up the ridge, and easily hiked up to the false summit. There was an inch of snow on the ground now, probably from the storm the previous evening. The entire trip to the false summit is merely hiking, but to get to the true summit in fact requires a bit of 4th class scrambling. For this reason many people turn around at the false summit.

The scramble looked reasonable to me, so I left my poles and started heading across. The scrambling is across a knife-edge rock ridge with pretty high exposure on both sides. It’s seen enough climber traffic, though, that most of the loose rocks have been dislodged. As long as you are careful with each hand and foothold, it’s not that bad.

For most of the ridge I scrambled along the sides, though at the narrowest point I had to tiptoe across a 1-ft-wide section, balancing with no handholds. I reached the summit at 8am, still under clear skies, with no other climbers in sight. There used to be a huge metal cross on the top, but it was laying on its side, with the attachment bolts removed.

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View across the caldera

The view was amazing. I could probably see almost the whole country of Armenia. In the distance, across the valley to the southwest, I could also make out Mt Ararat, the highest mountain in Turkey. It actually wasn’t that far away, but unfortunately the Armenia-Turkey border is closed, so it’s pretty difficult to get there from Mt Aragats.

I took a bunch of pictures, then laid down to take a nap. After about 30 minutes I woke up and saw another group of three hikers starting to scramble across the ridge. It turned out they were from France, and we exchanged taking pictures of each other on the summit.

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The French hikers on the false summit

They only stayed a few minutes, and when they left I returned to my comfortable little ledge and dozed off for another 30 minutes. The next time I woke up there were clouds starting to form around the mountain, and I decided I’d better leave. The scramble would be a bit dicey if it got wet and snowy.

I easily made it back to my poles, then hiked back down to the col. The weather wasn’t really that bad yet, and it was still morning, so I decided to do some more hiking while I was in such a nice area. I continued south up the ridge to the southeast peak, scrambling up some snow-covered rocks to reach the summit 45 minutes later.

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Rain moving in

By this time the clouds had built even more and I could no longer see the north summit. I quickly hiked back down to the col and descended into the caldera. At that point I noticed a few other hikers climbing up from the col to the north summit into the clouds. It soon started to rain, and I forgot about any ambitions I’d had to climb other peaks along the crater rim. At that point I wanted to get back to the trailhead as soon as possible before the thunderstorms came.

I hiked through the rain, back up to the western col, then jogged down towards the trailhead. A few claps of thunder hit as I was going down, and I worried about the guys who may still be on the summit. It was still raining hard by the time I returned to my SUV, and I quickly jumped inside and turned on the heat.

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Back at Kari Lake

I waited around a few hours until the rain stopped, then walked over to the restaurant at the trailhead to get some lunch. After a bit of confusion they finally realized I was trying to order food, and gave me some tasty lamb and pita bread.

That evening I drove a few miles down the road to a more secluded pullout, and had another nice sleep in the SUV. I got up at 3:30am, drove back to Yerevan, and just barely caught my 6am flight back to Moscow. My next highpoint would be the Seychelles highpoint, Morne Seychellois, the next day.
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