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Author: Peter Schon (Styria, Austria/British Columbia, Canada)
Photos: Peter Schon & Deon Louw (British Columbia, Canada)

South Caucasus Episodes, part I:
Armenia and Mt. Aragats (4090 m).

Deon telemarking on Aragats

April 10-th 2005. After waiting 2 weeks for good weather we eventually reach the summit of modern Armenia's highest peak. A few meters below Aragats summit (4090 m) Deon and I click into our skis to ski 2000 vertical meters back into Aragats village, a ski descent that should top one of the greatest journeys and adventures we ever had.

How we came to Armenia in a Nutshell.
During an avalanche course in Canada in 2004 I met Deon Louw. When he announced he was headed for an Europe trip in 2004/2005, we quickly planed on a joint trip somewhere in April 2005. We were short on money and had not time for a major expedition (4 weeks), so it had to be something close, yet exotic, new and interesting.
I remembered my father telling me about Armenia one day. My family is originally from East Germany and he had been there for a congress for work years ago. I pulled out my Caucasus map and quickly found enough hardly known mountain terrain for us to explore. And so we set out with our ski touring equipment to our first South Caucasus adventure.
My girlfriend Nina also to came along. She is not a climber nor skier, but I wanted her to see a bit of my world of ski touring and travelling for herself. She would stay for two weeks with us in Armenia before returning early to Austria because of university.
Ideas eventually turn into reality as we arrive in Yerevan on April 24th. After a few days in the city we head up into the mountains, to the town of Aparan on April 28th, were our host in Yerevan had arranged a stay with relatives of hers.

Little Ararat

There we were hosted with the typical Caucasian hospitality, with much bread, cheese, a variety of herbs, wine and vodka. A few of the family also happened to speak French (there is a French school in the town), so our language problem was solved too. Already on the first evening we get invited into some of their relatives' house to drink, eat and dance. A wonderful welcome to Armenia.

Ski Touring in a Magical Setting
The weather wraps the mountains in mist and clouds in the first days of our stay in Aparan. We still head out to explore the highlands surrounding us. Every now and then windows in the clouds allow a glimpse at the higher peaks.
These highlands, covered in mist and clouds, with their untouched, wild nature, the ever-present howling of the wolves, the roughness and their ancient monasteries that tell so many stories - of which we understand so little - and with the strong people living in them, are a place with a strange power.
Being there fills us with a certain energy, a feeling we have never had that strongly before in any other place. What causes this feeling and energy? The width of the land with its remote and seemingly unreachable mountains? The history of the place? The specific unit of hospitality and pride of the people? Or is it moving in great Ararat's shadow, the lost, so close yet unreachable mountain deeply embodied in every Armenian soul?
We don't know, but this energy and feeling would re-appear in Georgia's mountains under the shadow of great Mkinvartsveri (Kazbek). There must be a reason why these mountains play such a strong role in the histories of the people living near them, and why I would in the future continue to be drawn to the Caucasus.


Monasterie in the Mountains

Ski Touring in the Armenian Mountains

Wolf Tracks

Returning to Aparan after a Ski Tour

Mountains near Aparan

Ski Touring on Aragats

Deon and Ararat


Aragats, the Highest Peak of Modern Armenia
As the weather slowly starts to improve we focus our efforts on climbing and skiing 4090m high Aragats, the highest peak of Armenia. Its lower slopes are visible from Aparan, but the main summit is hidden behind a ridge. However, our initial effort are delayed - first bad weather rolling in again. Then, after a short stay in Yerevan to bring Nina to the airport, I become sick for a few days.
Regardless of that we attempt to climb Aragats in one day directly from Aparan (1850m) on April 7th during the first longer spell of good weather, but it is too far (probably 2300m vertical meters with many up and downs) and I am still too weak from my sickness. However, we get to a point where we can see the summit of the Aragats main summit for the first time, and have awesome views into Armenia and Anatolia.
Even Mkinvartsveri (Kazbek) on the Georgian/Russian border is visible in the very far distance. What a day despite not summiting!
We rush back into Aparan on our skis, looking forward to another attempt.

One of our Hosts and Deon unloading the UAZ

Aragats Massif

Ski Touring on Aragats

Ghegam Mtns (3597m)

Aragats E and N summits

Peter on Aragats


Aragats as seen from the East, from the road near Aparan, with the routes up Mt. Aragats North (=Main) summit.
Aragats village is seen on the lower right.
Red line - summer route through the gorge.
Blue line - our ski

On April 9th I feel not 100% fit, but healthy and strong enough for another attempt, this time from the near-by Aragats village (ca. 2000m).
After a sleepless early evening, one of the members of our host family drives us to Aragats village, and we set out at 00:00, again prepared for a long "day" trip. We skin up a wide plateau. Many wolf tracks on the way up keep our anxiety high. At about 3200m we are unsure how to continue, and we crawl into our bivy sacks to wait for the light of the new day. After about 2 hours, at about 6:45, we continue on, we can see the summit in the light of the rising sun.
A steep partly snow-covered screw slope leads to the summit area, which has sharp s towards the NW to E. It is a fairly clear day, but a cloud hangs over Aragats summit, reducing the visibility on there to almost nil. At about 13:00 we are at the summit. We spend a few minutes there, then begin our descent, and klick into our skis a about 100m below the
summit, and ski back into the village. It is an easy descent, but long and in difficult snow, and we are quite tired from the sleepless night and long way up.

Aragats East Summit (3908m)

Bivying on the Way at 3200m

Morning View of Aragats

Peter on the Summit of Aragats (4090m)

Deon telemarking on Aragats

Deon telemarking on Aragats

Kids in Aragats Village

At about 19:00 we are back in Aragats, exhausted but thrilled about the ride down this great mountain. As we arrive at the house from where our driver had waited with relatives, we are once again greeted with bread, cheese and vodka. How great the Caucasian hospitality is that we would continue to love during future trips to the South Caucasus.

Saying Good-Bye to Armenia, but our journey continues
We spend a few more days with our host family that we have grown fond of. Then we say our goodbyes to them and leave for Georgia. We leave a country full of history, a trouble-some and difficult present and past, beautiful mountains and hospitality, that left a big, lasting impression on us. We will surely return!
We hope great Mkinvartsveri (Kazbek) in Georgia would allow us an audience, but we are turned back by the horrible April weather.
But we spot an awesome skiing line on the peak, which would continue to haunt us for years to come and influence our philosophy of our sport and also our way of live. But that is another story&hellip.

A few hints for travelling to Aragats.

You can go to either Aparan or Aragats village. Aparan is larger and along the Yerevan-Vanadzor road, so it easier to get to from Yerevan. There are many ski touring possibilities to the east of Aparan (see photos 2-7 and in the background of photos 8 and 13), but you will probably want to start your tour to the summit from Aragats village.
You can climb and ski Aragats from Aparan, but it is a much longer tour (at least 2300m vertical with up and downs) then from Aragats village.

There is also a more frequently travelled route to the South summit via Byurakan - there is accommodation in Byurakan, and the tour is described in the book "Adventure Armenia" (by Bachmann and Tufenkian, 2004) (1) - it will only take to the South summit (3879 m), however for an ascent and ski descent of the North/main summit it is better to go from Aragats).

Getting to Aparan and Aragats Village:
There are many flights to Yerevan from Russia (e.g. Aeroflot, Armavia, Pulkovo Airlines) and Europe (e.g. Czech Airlines, Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, British Airways) to Yerevan.

Once you are there, you have three options to get to Aparan and Aragats village:
1. Taxi from Yerevan to Aragats village this is the easiest option, especially if you are unfamiliar with the country and the language. Costs depend largely on the driver, your price negotiation skills and the current price situation in the country.
2. Take a mini bus ("marshrutka" - the most common form of transportation in Armenia between cities) from Yerevan to Aparan. The bus to Vanadzor and Tbilisi (Georgia) also passes through there. To get to Aragats take a taxi or try to get a ride with locals.
3. Take a mini bus or bus to Aparan and start the tour from there - this route is much longer than from Aragats village, and involves some strength-consuming up and downs

Also: When you come from Tbilisi (Georgia), the bus to Yerevan should usually go through Aparan (check if possible beforehand).


To find accommodation in Yerevan, you can use one of the popular backpacker guidebooks (e.g. Lonely Planet "Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan" (by Masters and Plunkett, 2006)(2) - note that this is not meant as a comment about the quality of that particular book, we just used it to find our accommodation in Yerevan - or ask one the message board of the Lonely Planet Thorntree (thorntree.lonelyplanet.com Eastern Europe and the Caucasus). We used one of the various homestays, where people rent out room in their house to foreigners.
There was no accomodation in Aparan and Aragats when we where there, tourism was almost unheard of. There will also be little to no information in most common Armenia handbooks. (An exception could be the route to the South summit via Byurakan, see above)

We stayed in Aparan with locals, which we had pre-arranged in Yerevan. If your host or other people in Yerevan cannot pre-arrange a stay in Aparan or Aragats, you will have to try to find accommodation once there.
Given the generous hospitality of the Caucasian people you will probably be invited in somebody's house for food and drinks and should be able to find a place to sleep if you ask around.

However, this requires some language knowledge (Russian/Armenian) and some experience in travelling in the Caucasus is also good. Russian is generally understood, but not always by the younger people.

For the Non-Russian or Non-Armenian readers:
If you have language problems and still want to chance it finding a place to stay in Aparan, here are two hints: There is a French school in Aparan. Some locals speak French.
When we where there, there was also a young US-American teacher was volunteering there, his name is Chris. Ask around, maybe he is still there (people know him) or maybe a colleague of him.

Links to Online Maps :
Soviet 1:100 000 Map
In English:
Aragatsotn East
The map on the following side is not very detailed but gives a good overview:
Topographic map of Aragats (1:250,000 scale) from DMA Map NK 38-11 Yerevan Contacts for Climbing Information in Yerevan
I recommend to contact Wishup Adventures in Yerevan.

Additional Comments:
- Be aware that the mountains in this region are very pristine, and that the nature in the Armenian highlands is wild. We encountered plenty of wolf tracks in the mountains, and bears also exist.
- Aparan and Aragats village are not used to tourist and climbers. The people are usually friendly, but may be a bit a suspicious who you are and what you do there, but once they know usually you are likely to be met with great hospitality. Threat the locals with respect and learn about their customs and culture before you go there. Learn a few phrases Armenian. Read about the history of the country, it will help you to understand the mentality of the Armenian people.
- As said, the region is pristine. Leave it like that. Take out what you take in, and be respectful to the nature.

About the Author.

Photo: Paul Lombard.
Peter Schon (now 24) was born in East Germany, and has lived most of his life in the province of Styria in Austria.
He is an avalanche worker and has an Bachelor degree in Physical Geography (University of Salzburg) and is also a Master student in Geo Sciences at Graz University. He currently lives in British Columbia (Canada) where he works as avalanche worker and where he is in Canadian Avalanche Association Industry Level 2 avalanche training. He holds a certification as Canadian Wilderness First Responder (advanced first aid training).

He has travelled extensively in Chile and Argentina, where he climbed and skied various 5000 m and 6000 m peaks, and also did mountain bike descents of 5000m volcanoes in the Eastern Alps he skied multiple up to 55 degrees steep classic ice/snow routes. He returned to the Southern Caucasus in 2005 and plans to do so as often as possible in the future.

1. Bachmann, C., Tufenkian, J.: Adventure Armenia. The Karnach Foundation, Yerevan, 2004.
2. Masters, T., Plunkett, R.: Lonely Planet – Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan. 2nd edition, Lonely Planet Publications, July 2004.

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