It is mid-August again and the heat may be unbearable here in Yerevan, but it is perfect conditions for climbing Mt. Ararat (elevation 5,137 m/16,854 ft)—the best time of year for such an undertaking. In the past month or so, I have heard of a few groups of climbers who have successfully climbed Ararat and proudly announced their achievement. A bit of controversy has been hitting the online news services, as a result, mostly about the reaction from Turkey. There has been a lot of noise regarding whose flag was up there and what it really represented.
I am no mountain climber myself, but coming from the same background as many Diaspora Armenians, I can well understand the desire and appeal for taking on such a challenge. I wanted to know about the real motivation that drives so many to attempt the climb. Mt. Ararat is certainly nowhere near as high as the Himalayas or as daunting a climb. Even so, one needs to keep the main goal in mind and a burning desire together with sheer strength of will to keep going until one reaches the summit.
I have had very interesting conversations with local friends about this sudden interest in climbing Mt. Ararat. One question, though, keeps coming up: “Why are they so obsessed with climbing Ararat, when there is so much more that they can do, right here, in our homeland?” Is the quest to climb Mt. Ararat, then, simply a travel adventure, or does it represent something more to Armenian mountain climbers?
Here, in Armenia, it is not uncommon to meet repatriates who have a unique sense of mission and purpose. They often start with a set of very ambitious goals and stay in the country for however long it may take to accomplish them. They have a genuine desire to change Armenia for the better. But how about the Diaspora Armenians who cannot make that leap of faith and directly move here? Don’t they have the same attachment to Armenia and nostalgic ties with the motherland through songs, literature and, of course, the iconic image of Mt. Ararat which hangs in most Armenian homes?
For the climbers I met and with whom I have become close friends, the answer seems to be yes. They are the quintessential Diaspora Armenians from Los Angeles, California. They trained for almost a year in order to climb a mountain together. Their intention was not to climb just any mountain, but to scale the heights of their dream: Ararat. They said that they had “read Ararat, dreamed Ararat and sung songs about Ararat.” It was, for them, a natural progression to want to climb the very mountain that had held such a special place in their hearts and reach the summit of which they would have the chance to see, with their own eyes, the valleys of Western Armenia. They wanted to soak up all that could have, and should have, been part of today’s Armenia.
It is not difficult to lead a team of eight males and three females to Mt. Ararat when you are Baghdik Der Grigorian, Vachik Zakarian and Roubik Mardirosian – veteran mountain climbers. What made this team so unique to me was that they all share the same background. All are Armenians born in Iran, but currently living in Los Angeles. All but the youngest member, Mineh, were members of the “Ararat” Sports Club, an incredibly nurturing environment for young Armenians living in Tehran. Their climbing expedition is aptly named “Ararat 2 Ararat.”
The team’s camaraderie has its roots in their childhood during which time they learned how to follow orders, share a tent, be team players as well as team leaders. Above all, they learned the meaning of what it is to be an Armenian. They grew up together, sang the inspiring national songs that invariably express the longing and desire to see an independent motherland whilst they held onto the dream of, one day, climbing to the very top of Mt. Ararat. On 5th August, this year, that dream became a reality for the eleven member team. Moreover, the eight male members continued on with their climb and reached the summit of Mt. Sipan on the 8th of August.
‘Ararat 2 Ararat’ Members
Baghdik Der Grigorian – This was his second climb to the Ararat summit, a more meaningful journey since his 35 year old daughter was climbing with him. “We were better prepared this year,” he said, “because we had more information in hand which made the whole journey a lot easier; so much so that we even climbed Mt. Sipan!”
“The road is long, going through Georgia, crossing Dogubayazit and then Khars, but very interesting. We had mixed feelings all the way, thinking this land was our homeland. It was incredibly crowded in the second camp which was a rocky and a rough camp. Almost 200 people were camping there. At 4,200 meters, we had to go up to the summit from there and get back. We came across Russians, French, Germans and Iranians. There are lots of mountains that are more challenging to climb, but Mt. Ararat has a special meaning for different individuals.”
“We are planning to create a website for sharing all this valuable information. We had detailed GPS plans. The first two days were not difficult, at all, but the third day was quite challenging. We started at 1.00 am and in five and a half hours, you reach the summit. We were there for 45 minutes then it took another three hours getting down.”
“I believe every young Armenian should do this. Even if they can’t climb the mountain I would suggest they all go to Western Armenia. It is an incredibly interesting place. I’m not an emotional person, I’m more logical. But the first time that I went there, I could not hold back my tears. I have climbed many mountains, but always felt that, for me, Ararat was the ultimate climb because it’s been a dream of mine for many, many years. As for the moment when you reach the summit, I don’t have the words to explain the feeling that overwhelms one. And I had the same feeling when climbing Mt. Sipan.”
“Our success was due to teamwork and having the girls with us made the whole experience particularly special. And the fact that all of us reached the summit together was incredible. It is common practice, when mountain climbing, to raise one’s country’s flag at the summit just to show a sense of pride and to mark one’s achievement.
“This climb of ours has created a tremendous amount of interest. Since we got back, at least four people have approached me to sign up for a climb next year. My eldest daughter is planning to be part of next year’s team. This patriotic desire is healthy and we should not ruin this for propaganda purposes. I have little time for reactionary talk which I believe is counter-productive and does not serve any useful purpose. I am, understandably, saddened to see the state of ruin in which Ani, Akhthamar and other similar treasures have fallen. I hope to see them in a better condition, in future.”
Harmik Baghdasarian – Having just turned 50, he had this to say about the climbing expedition: “It was not just a physical challenge for me. We have lived and been nurtured with the idea of Ararat as a symbol of all that is Armenia so this was something I simply had to do. Every step for me was a memory.” One of the memorable images for me was to see the mountain’s shadow getting larger and larger as we reached closer to the top and turned to look at the Ararat valley. It is just an amazing and indescribable sight. You forget all feelings of pain and fatigue. As you get closer to the summit, you are overcome with this indescribable energy and strength—an adrenaline rush—to reach the very top.”
“We met German and Austrian climbers and they expressed surprise when they learned of our emotional attachment to this mountain. It felt like home to us all and we were fortunate enough to be there and welcome all these guests to our homeland. After we descended Ararat, we crossed Lake Van on the following day and went to Akhtamar Island to visit the Akhtamar Monastery. There, we encountered a group of teenagers aged between 14 and 16 who were holding the tricolor Armenian flag. They were winners of the Hai Aspet’s (Armenian Knight) television contest. They filed into the church to light candles and to sing, but they were turned out immediately by the guards. Naturally, they were very upset because they had gone there to pray. However, they danced the Ishkhan (folk dance) outside the church – nothing was more important to these youths than to pay their respects to their ancestors. I applaud their courage. I felt that they brought some life into the church.”
Roubina Hovnanian-Manouchehri – A 50-year mother of two teenage sons, Roubina had never climbed a mountain, before. “I actually got up every Saturday at 6:30 am and went training for this climb. We exercised vigorously and it was worth it! The funny thing is that I was more nervous and stressed over this challenge than I was on my wedding day. My emotions took hold of me from that first hour in the bus at the start of the trip. Every step was a tear for me, I was overtaken by emotions which I could not control.” All the way going up, I never attempted to look at the summit because the goal being far, you do not want to be discouraged by looking at the distance to be covered. I kept my head low and followed our team leader, Vachik. I never thought that doing something special like this was something no one else could do. Anyone can do this but even with just ten steps to the summit, I still could not believe that I’d make it. I was so nervous that I could not say I realized that I’d done it until I took the last step up! They tell me that on the way back, I literally rolled down the mountain. I don’t doubt it because I have all the bruises to remind me of it. People were just amazing with their words of encouragement. On the way, we met this man who said, “you have come all the way from America to climb Mt. Ararat. I wish I had a lamb to sacrifice in your honor”.
I asked Roubina if all the tears were tears of exhaustion. “No, I did not feel fatigue or exhaustion going up. But, as soon as I came down to my tent after the climb, I could not control myself and I cried for half an hour, straight, from sheer exhaustion.”
Vachik Zakarian – An experienced mountaineer who celebrated his 70th birthday on Mt. Sipan on August 8th had this to say. “I have been an active member of the Ararat Club’s mountaineering division since I was 18 years old and have climbed many mountains in Iran and in the United States. This was my third climb to Mt. Ararat and my first climb to Mt. Sipan. My friends had a big birthday surprise for me waiting on the summit of Mt. Sipan. My good friend, Greg had been carrying a piece of dry cake (perok) and all other good stuff, all the way from L.A. to the top of Sipan to celebrate my 70th birthday. There were candles and a banner which had “Happy Birthday” printed on it. I was truly touched. I will never forget this birthday.” As it happened, I had a bottle of an Armenian Cognac which added that extra something to this amazing and unforgettable celebration. My journey ended with the climb of Mt. Aragats which I completed on the return trek back to Armenia. I think it’s high time for me to stop these difficult adventures and stick to more simple and easier climbs. All in all, it’s been a fantastic journey!”
Roubik Mardirosian – This was his second climb to Mt. Ararat and his first to Mt. Sipan. “We had trained well in L.A. and that training paid off. Seven of us had a dream to climb Mt. Sipan as well, and that dream, too was realized! Though it was a much more difficult a climb, this entire journey was an amazing experience which I’ll never forget.”
Greg Sookasian – A first-time climber, Greg had this to say about his experience, “We read and breath Ararat from childhood, but I never imagined that one day I would actually climb Ararat. There was some doubt about my ability to make the climb because of my serious back problems. I bought my first climbing boots, but since I could not complete my first climb in L.A., I had to return them to the shop. But I did not give up! I bought another set of boots and practiced and stuck with it until I succeeded to complete a climb in L.A.! By the time we reached the second camp in Armenia, however, I had serious doubts about being able to continue as my bad back was giving me grief. But, I looked up and the mountain seemed to be calling me so I crawled and limped my way along until I reached the top. I had a mission to track and record every step of our team’s moves on a video camera. I’m proud to say that I managed to record everyone’s arrival on the summit. My next wish is to have my daughter, Alina, accompany me on my next attempt.”
Melineh Saginian – A 50-year old proud mother’s account was moving. “This was one of the most important and difficult decisions made in my entire life. I decided to do this for my father, Sevag Saginian.” Melineh’s father was a prominent member of the Iranian parliament in Iran, prior to the Islamic Revolution. “My father had fought for the Armenian cause throughout his life. However, due to difficult circumstances and his illness, he was not able to see our independent Armenia. Even though I had never, ever, climbed a mountain in my life, I felt that I could climb Mt. Masis and reach the Ararat summit and look towards Armenia from the highest point and let my Dad see our country through my eyes. I’m sure that he now has! We had a great team and excellent team leaders who led us safely to the top. I owe my success in this to our team leaders. And I have to say that if I, a fifty year old female, can achieve this feat after only seven months’ training, then anyone with a strong will and purpose can do the same, also.”
Armen Norhadian – “I did this journey as homage to my parents and my ancestors and for the one and half million Armenians who lost their lives so tragically nearly a century ago,” says Armen, who is 63 years old. “This is my sixth visit to Armenia and when staying in Yerevan, I always try to book a room that faces Mt. Ararat. As I had always longed to see Yerevan from the other side, as soon as I found out that a few of my friends were getting ready for this expedition, I joined in and prepared for this physically and mentally challenging feat. The most memorable moment for me was seeing Alexan Bayanduryan, a disabled one-legged Artsakh War veteran climb Mt. Ararat and to reach the summit. I admire him, greatly and he was an inspiration to us all. Our achievements were humble in comparison.
Mineh Dergrigorian Zadourian – A 35 year old young mother of two, Mineh explains, “My main motivation was to climb with my Dad but as soon as I found out that my aunt, too, was going, I just had to do it! The ability of males vs females in mountain climbing made no difference to me. The only thing that was evident was that we had to work a little harder physically. Reaching the summit with my Dad was something I will cherish for the rest of my life. I would like it if every young Armenian has this experience. It is for each generation to pay its debt to the past generations in their efforts to continue to demonstrate their patriotism. This experience has left a profound impression on me. I now hope that, one day, my two daughters will follow their parents’, grandfather’s, great aunt’s example and take this same journey.”
Unfortunately, I only had the opportunity to talk to nine of the eleven members of the Mt. Ararat climbing expedition. Each one had a unique perspective and a purpose for this challenge. To my surprise they all became very emotional when talking about their journey. Where do all these emotions come from? These emotions run very deep and the team’s sense of pride in reaching its goal—after spending so many years sitting around campfires as young scouts, reading and dreaming of this event—is all too clear to see.
To me, these “brothers and sisters” who had realized their dream, had in a sense “reached the moon!” This particular team of climbers seemed to be saying to the world, “We came, we remembered and we will never forget.” They called it their “bardk” –homage to their motherland, Armenia.