Summiting Aragats

I climbed to the tallest peak in Armenia, in the northern part of Aragats. I had already been to the southern peak many times; it is the one most easily reached from the Byurakan Observatory, a scientific post dedicated to collecting and analyzing cosmic rays that fall down to Earth and reach the highest point in Armenia.

Aragats is hauntingly beautiful, an empty rolling landscape at the top of the world. There is no life here, save for a few birds and insects, yellow grasses, lichen, and the odd bright blue ground-hugging gentian. At over 4,000 meters the air is thin, breathing is difficult, the heart beats fast and keeps rhythm with the pounding in my head. I only had enough energy to take small calculated steps over the large, jagged, grey volcanic rocks, which later became sharper black, then rounded, pockmarked red, and finally tiny pebbles, gravel and sand. Every two steps up to the northern peak was followed by one step sliding backwards down the steep slope. Halfway up, the mountain completely with tall spires of misshapen rock pushing up through the gravel, but at least it was something to grab onto for pulling myself up. The last few meters were so steep with gravel that I had to run in order to avoid sliding all the way back down.

As I reached the top, a sense of calm and accomplishment fell over me. I drew a deep breath, letting the canyon winds wash over me; the silence was refreshing, the sun was strong yet the cool winds were stronger, making for a rewarding sensory experience. I opened my eyes to the sight of a rainbow of all the mineralized rock I’d traversed in the canyon, Ararat and rolling green-yellow hills that sprawled into multicolored fields along the other side, dotted with pools of green, yellow and aquamarine water. Pockets of white smoke were rising into the sky, springing from natural forest fires in the distance.

The slide down was exhilarating, with the same rocks rolling and tumbling under and over my feet. I descended into the canyon and followed the river there until it climaxed into a powerful waterfall, with tall rock walls along three of its sides, and the rest of my journey unfolding from the fourth. I camped that night under the stars, ready to head toward Aragats village the next day.