Phhh. Our car stalls in the Zvartnots parking lot just as the third member of our climbing team, Marius, reports he “knows how to drive stick.”
We all laugh. Less than an hour into our trip and the three of us already click with Mkhitar, our local climbing guide. Climbing does that to you. 5am on the first day and we are already starting to feel at home 7000 miles away from it. Marius’ driving was a running joke of the trip—just one of our innumerable great memories. (We often opted to wear our climbing helmets when he was in at the helm of our Lada Niva—an indestructible Russian SUV.)
Armenia’s climbing community is small, but vibrant and growing. Mkhitar is at the center of it all. Mkhik, as he’s known, is a veritable one-man movement to establish a technical rock-climbing and guiding culture here. It's working.
His rack is slim: some Russian pitons, a handful of cams, some chocks and hexes and few heavy quick draws. His list of climbing accomplishments is surprisingly long given what little he has to work with.
We waste no time. Our plane lands at 4:30am and after a short nap we are already climbing. We arrive at the “Old School” crag just minutes from bustling downtown Yerevan. “The first thing you need to know about climbing in Armenia is how to scare away the vipers,” reports Mkhik. A slight exaggeration perhaps, but we aren’t taking any chances in this tall grass that might mask unknown predators. Nearing sunset Mkhik proudly displays his traversing 30-meter V4 boulder problem that he has sent (there and back) many times.
We soon depart Yerevan and split the majority of our time between the varied sport climbs in Hell’s Canyon (which range from 5.9 to a cave that goes at 5.13 something—the country's hardest) and the heady trad leads on loose hexagonal columns in Garni gorge—a sight that boggles the mind and one that should not be missed. “Symphony of Stones” is a fitting name for one formation and it's no surprise that many of these basalt structures are national monuments.
Buses full of friendly, curious tourists visiting the beautiful landscape and rich history stop to gawk in Noravank Canyon. We smile, chat and wave as they ask, often in English: “How do you get the rope up there?”
The atmosphere at the first-ever indoor climbing competition in Armenian history evidences the steady growth of climbing in the country. It was an honor to attend. A passionate, small group of climbers, some beginners even, showed true grit and dedication to climbing, a sport most in the country know nothing about.
As our trip draws to an end, Yerevan cranks into the 30s. June is hot and getting hotter. We are tired: more than a fortnight on the rock with less than two days of rest, coupled with Marius’ driving and the unrelentingly sharp limestone, makes us look (and feel) like we’ve been through a cheese grater. Now back in America, we feel at ease in the routine of daily life. Yet, as hardly two weeks elapse, and as the scabs on our forearms begin to peel, we are yearning for this foreign, faraway place. We feel drawn back to Armenia’s majestic landscape, rich culture and endless climbing possibilities.
Did we get tired of the lavash and kebab? A little bit. Did we tire of day-in, day-out climbing, adventure, first ascents, falls, hangs, takes, snakes (poisonous or otherwise) and new lifelong friendships? Not for a second. Are we already planning our next trip in 2013 to attend Up the Rocks' “Armenian First Ascent Open Festival”? Yes! Will Marius be driving? Doubt it!
P.S. Karsten Delap is a professional climber and AMGA Certified Rock Guide living in North Carolina and also runs the organization Fox Mountain Guides. Paige Marta Skiba is an economist living in Tennessee.